Some psychologists fear that religion erodes self-esteem. Some believers fear that self-esteem endangers salvation. Who is right?
Religious discourse against pride has led to, among other things, the formation of extreme views leading to salvation by self-repression (a classic example is penance). Observing the relationship between religion and efforts to eradicate pride, some psychologists have hypothesised that religiosity is in a relationship of inverse proportionality to self-respect. But efforts to prove this hypothesis have generated contradictory answers.
On the one hand, there is the perspective that religiosity erodes self-esteem because the dogmatism that characterizes religion makes it essentially a mental disorder. Adherents of this perspective say that orthodox notions, such as the sinful nature of man, nurture feelings of guilt and self-doubt. On the other hand there are studies (see, for example, here and here) that show that a belief in the unconditional love and acceptance of God tends to increase a sense of self-worth, precisely in relation to God.
The main obstacle in solving the above dilemma is that many variables can interfere with the assumption that the influence of religion is positive / negative. N. Krause recalled studies with very firm conclusions, but which were made on small samples, made up only of women. Until 1995, when Krause published his conclusions, the researcher noticed that most studies only considered a limited range of variables that measure religiosity, usually strictly equivalent to participating in a church’s religious services. Other studies were difficult to verify with other theoretical explanations, because they were based mainly on bivariate statistics (they followed the relationship between only two variables).
Krause comes up with his own answer to the question of whether religion nourishes or destroys self-esteem—an answer he relates to the experience of religious older people. Krause argues that, instead of the degree of religiosity unidirectionally prescribing the level of self-confidence, it would rather have a U-shaped influence. Specifically, the elderly with very strong religious beliefs and those most uninvolved religiously would have the highest scores when testing self-esteem. In contrast, subjects with a moderate level of religious commitment would have a lower level of self-esteem. The key element Krause notes is “the maturity of faith.” People in the U-curve “have not gone from guilt to salvation.” Therefore, he says, in the case of this group, religiosity would be associated with diminished feelings of self-esteem. In other words, people who take their faith seriously show greater respect for themselves. But this conclusion raises a certain question for some of the believers.
Well-meaning Christians can sometimes be frightened by the notion of self-confidence / self-esteem because to them it aligns too much with the exclusive and illusory reliance on their own powers, or worse: it emulates selfishness. A true Christian, they will say, must not respect himself, but respect God. He must give up himself, hide his own self in Christ. “Let him not live, but Christ in him,” said the apostle Paul. But the deeper we enter into the discussion, both in the psychological and the theological debate, the distinction between self-confidence / pride, self-esteem / selfishness becomes more obvious, and the danger becomes more and more diffuse.
In everyday speech, we often use self-confidence and self-esteem as two synonymous concepts. And it is true, the two somewhat intertwine. But they also cover some aspects that differentiate them.
Specialists define self-confidence as “the high level of certainty of the individual in relation to their own abilities, skills and judgments.” Confidence refers to the individual’s potential to meet daily challenges successfully. Self-esteem is “the belief in the value of the self, perceived by the individual in question.” Self-esteem is sometimes defined as “the belief that we deserve happiness, love and success throughout life.” Confidence says: “I think I can,” while esteem says, “I think I’m right.”
In the popular literature, the two are often treated as a whole. Nathaniel Branden, for example, the psychologist who popularised the term self-esteem, defined self-confidence as “…an experience. Seeing that you can cope with everyday challenges. Having confidence in your ability to think, to learn, to choose, to make decisions to adapt to change. It means knowing that you deserve happiness.”
Who do we trust if we don’t trust ourselves?
In some religious circles, the danger of exaggerating self-confidence to the point of pride is perceived as greater and more loaded with negative consequences than the danger of self-disregard, which is reflected in the fact that extreme pride is spoken of much more than its reverse. However, if we look at the two extremes, we can intuit the balance of the middle way more easily. Therefore, if too much self-confidence leads to narcissism and egocentricity, what does a lack of self-confidence lead to? In the extreme, lack of self-confidence translates not into humility, but into irresponsibility.
People with low self-esteem tend to perceive that they have no control over what they experience. Of course, no man has absolute control over his own person, much less over his external circumstances. But the chronic feeling of lack of control also includes, unjustly, elements on which the individual can act. There is a major difference between feeling that we do not have control when a loved one gets sick, or when we are being abused, and feeling that we do not have control over our own habits. If we have no control, then we are not responsible either. But such an inference contradicts the general message of Christianity. The Bible constantly speaks to people as responsible moral agents. It acknowledges that human nature somewhat limits our abilities because it predisposes us to sin. But the Bible also advocates for the experience of deliverance through Christ from the tyranny of helplessness that cancels responsibility and, implicitly, dehumanises us.
“Poor self-image and low self-esteem cause very, very great suffering to people,” says Adriana Buda, a Romanian psychotherapist.
Harvey Cox wrote in his book Not Leaving It To The Snake that “apathy is the key form of sin in today’s world. […] For Adam and Eve apathy meant letting a snake tell them what to do. It meant abdicating […] the exercise of dominion and control of the world.” The American theologian John Stott, quoting Harvey Cox in the book The Cross of Christ, argued that “decision-making belongs to the essence of our humanness” and that “sin is not only the attempt to be God; it is also the refusal to be man, by shuffling off responsibility for our actions”.
Trusting God is not a substitute for self-confidence. And, although we sometimes behave as if we were our own gods, it is obvious that self-confidence must not take the place of trust in God either. The two must be struck in a balance as difficult to restore as restoring the good intentions of a sinful man. Transforming a man used to holding his destiny in his own hands into one capable of recognising that his moral compass needs major repairs and being willing to change his standards to God’s standards, is a miracle. The transformation of a man who lies crushed under endless fears into a man who is capable of shaking off self-pity and taking the initiative, to build, to create with his hands, together with God, is also a miracle.
“I’ll be fine, no matter what. Come what may, I will be fine.” This line from the ending scene of a Romanian film remained imprinted in my mind. The movie tells the story of a teenage girl, living in a port city, who wears the marks of all the incomprehensible suffering she’s had to endure in her short life. She’s only 16 years old, and at home, at school, and among her peers, most of the people who should protect her abuse her. After the last hit, when it seemed like the pain of all the injustices she had experienced would flood and drown her, she finds the strength and conviction to say, “I’ll be fine, no matter what.” The film ends with this allusion. It’s bitter, because it refers to a bright future that does not seem to have any roots in the present, but also sweet, because the viewer wants the girl to be alright and hopes that her trust in things that are not yet seen will materialise and that she will no longer be the only human in the world who loves her.
Self-confidence is similar to and intertwined with trust in God in the sense that it, too, is a matter of faith, hope, and love. You need faith so that, when you do not find in yourself resources for what is to come, you would still be able to move forward based on trust in the God who lacks nothing. You need hope to believe that He will equip you and train you to face any challenge. And you need to live His love in order to keep moving forward, even when the road breaks down.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.